Man has a horrible tendency to muck things up whenever he/she messes with Mother Nature.
Let’s hope that’s not the case in the Galapagos Island – the very birthplace of evolution — where they are right now experimenting with eradicating invasive rats by dropping poisoned bait from helicopters.
When Charles Darwin first wandered the Galapagos in 1835 he would not have seen a single rat or mouse. They’ve only arrived in recent years having hitched rides on cargo and passengers ships, which now frequent the heavily touristed islands.
But like other island states that have been infested by rats, which thrive without any natural predators, they tend to wreak havoc on native species and are not easy to rid. In the Galapagos they are after the eggs of tortoises, iguanas and 50 other land and sea birds. They also bring parasites and introduce brand new diseases.
The project’s manager, Victor Carrion, says most-at-risk are the Galapagos petrel – which is on the verge of extinction — a one-of-a-kind species known only in the Galapagos and of which there are only 120 left.
In a tally by the U.N. World Heritage committee meeting in Brasilia last week the Galapagos Islands were taken off the list of World Heritage sites formally considered “in danger.”
Tourists march on in the Galapagos. Photo by Fiona Stewart
The 19-island chain off the coast of Ecuador was added to the list in 2007, thanks to rapid increases in overfishing, most egregiously sea cucumber poaching and shark finning. While the islands are well protected from the heavy impact of tourist’s feet – 97 percent of the islands are off limits to the tourist industry, which has boomed in recent years – the seas that surround them had been less well protected.
The problem stemmed from horrific poverty on the mainland; tens of thousands of impoverished Ecuadoreans dreamed of moving to the islands to cash in on the tourism boom. About 30,000 did. When they arrived and found no pot of gold at the end of the tourist rainbow, many turned to illegal fishing.
After the president of Ecuador announced the island state at “great risk,” the Galapagos were added to the endangered list. After just two years, a vote of 14-5 took it off. Brazil, at the request of Ecuador, had asked that the Galapagos be taken off the list. Apparently the bad publicity of being ranked “endangered” (thus mismanaged) outweighed the need to use the listing to keep world attention focused on the problems.
Street protests are not a common occurrence in Galapagos, but a recent decision by the Ecuadorian government to fight over fishing and illegal fishing by giving fishermen tourist permits – over other residents, who’ve been waiting patiently themselves, many for years – sent locals into the streets armed with pots for banging, loudly. Virtually everyone who’s moved to the Galapagos in recent years has come with hopes of participating in – getting rich off? – the booming tourism industry. With permits greatly reduced, the line of hopefuls is long. That the government is trying to buy off fishermen by letting them jump to the front of the line isn’t sitting well.
Near the front of the protest is a solitary gringo, a sixty-something man in a red polo shirt and khaki shorts, carrying a placard and a megaphone. Jack Nelson’s father came to the Galapagos in 1961, by thirty-six-foot sailboat; he opened its first hotel. When the son came a few years later, hoping to avoid the U.S. draft and maybe adapt to island life, he never anticipated staying. He went on to become the Galapagos first tourist guide and is still here, watching the place he loves evolve. The hotel has been sold but he still co-owns a dive shop, so is actively interested in who’s getting new tourist permits … and who is not.
“The human population in the Galapagos is doubling every five years. What is really significant about that number is not just the environmental impact or living standards, but it’s political in that the political majority has been here just five years. There are people who don’t know anything about the place, don’t really understand what the issues are but since they have become the majority the government responds to their demands.”
Does he still love the place? “In some ways. It’s certainly still very beautiful but it’s becoming less enjoyable to live here because of the political problems and conflicts and things like increased noise pollution and contamination.
“One thing that’s killing the place is the introduced species that arrive with all the increase in tourism and business. Here’s a great example. A young lady arrived at Baltra with a rose that her boyfriend gave her wrapped with tissue and foil around the base to keep it damp. At the airport the national park rangers jump her, take it away and burn it with their cigarette lighters because it’s an ‘introduced species.’ Simultaneously at the dock a few miles away a ship is unloading thousands of tons of uninspected cargo – bales, boxes, crates and bags of stuff, much of it carrying invasive species of one kind or another.
“What do we need? Desperately, better public education about the local issues and economics, in a way people on the street can understand. Pretty presentations with university level vocabularies are meaningless. If people can’t understand where the money is coming from … or not… they don’t care about anything else.
“Education about simple things too, like the problem with the introduction of species. Everybody who comes to live here wants to bring a dog. And not just any dog, but a special breed. One wants a German Shepard, another a Great Dane, another a cocker spaniel. It shows that they don’t really understand the impact of that on this place. It’s not just dogs and cats; we have five new species of introduced gecko living here that are competing with and chasing out the endemic gecko. Which changes the balance for the birds, plants and soil and on and on, a cascade of changes.
“We definitely need stricter migration policies and realistic caps on the number of boats and number of beds and how many times they can turn over each week. Now, for example, a lot of the tourist boats are running what I call the nine-day week. They sell a five-day tour and a four-day tour, which means on a couple days each week they’re doubling up, turning over a lot more tourists than the caps should allow, which raises the pressures on everything. Another problem is that local population is promoting more and more mass market, lower quality tourists because they have no access to the first-class tourists. And mass-market tourism brings heavy environmental impacts for low profit and requires even more infrastructure.
“I think we may be coming to a point where a whole lot of the laws, regulations and policies have to be reformed. When you’re in the tourism business the last thing you want is trouble. Like street protests, for example. Even perceived trouble in a tourist town can cause cancellations and wreck business for a long time. So to avoid ‘trouble’ sometimes we just go along with bad things we see happening around us. But it’s too late to ignore now.”
The rarest living creature on Earth may soon become a proud papa—and oldest natural father on record, according to the Galapagos Conservancy and NPR.
If you’ve traveled to the Galapagos Islands within the last 30 years, you’ve only been privy to one Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, whom Darwin Station scientists have delightfully dubbed “Lonesome George,” the last of its subspecies. But hopefully that’ll all change in about 120 days, when the five eggs recently found in his pen hatch.
A type of giant tortoise, scientists have unsuccessfully been playing matchmaker with George in Galapagos National Park since the 1970s. At 198 pounds, the Geochelone nigra abingdoni has been slow in finding his mate. But now that he’s come into his sexual peak at the ripe age of 90 (they can live until 150 years old), George has become downright frisky. Last year he mated for the first time in 36 years, but the eggs laid were unfortunately infertile. The recent introduction of two female giant tortoises of another subspecies, however, has obviously caused George to get his groove on.
Despite the joyful news, Lonesome George’s tale tells a more serious story about the impact humans have had on the Galapagos ecosystem. Central to Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is believed there were more than 100,000 Galapagos tortoises and 15 subspecies when man arrived on the islands.
But because tortoises can live up to a year with little food or necessities, they were prime meat for sailors, who then introduced goats on the islands so the fishermen could consume goat meat instead. This was just more bad news for the tortoise, as the goats ate the few tortoises left. In order to curb the likely extinction of the Galapagos staple, the Galapagos National Park Service began a program to eradicate the goats, and the Charles Darwin Research Station began a tortoise-rearing project in the 1970s, collecting endangered tortoise eggs from other islands to put in a captive breeding program.
Today, about 20,000 giant tortoises live on the Galapagos—and, hopefully, George’s Pinta legacy will also live on. — LAURA BUCKLEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE
While Sea Shepherd’s chief cheerleader and trouble-inspirer Paul Watson is holding forth from his ship, The Farley Mowat, continuing its chase of Japanese whale hunters off Antarctica and (recently) being arrested on a thirty-year-old warrant in Portugal (where he had gone to attend a meeting of the International Whaling Commission) … the Washington state-based environmental group’s second-most visible campaign is ongoing, in the Galapagos.
From a very prominent, second-story office just across from the main fishing dock on Santa Cruz Alex Cornellisen manages the Shepherd’s Galapagos operation. At the moment, it is a two-person band. His focus is on trying to keep a global audience alerted to issues of over fishing and illegal fishing. To that end the group has already donated a boat to the park rangers, to help them enforce the marine reserves rules and regulations. A veteran of Sheperd’s Antarctica campaigns, Cornellisen is happy to be in the slightly less-amped environment of Galapagos. That said, his predecessor was chased out of the country when the shark fin “mafia” put a hit out on him.
“In Ecuador you can get someone killed for $40,” says Cornellisen, standing on the balcony of his office, looking down at the main dock where small fishing boats are unloading legal catches. “So you have to take threats seriously here.” His primary concern about the Galapagos is that while there are plenty of rules against illegal fishing, enforcement is difficult.
“Last year we were responsible for several raids which resulted in the confiscation of about ninety thousand sea cucumbers, and about thirty thousand shark fins. But there is an enormous amount of illegal fishing that still continues. For example, the legal quota for sea cucumbers last year was about two million allowed to be taken out of the park. Only about 1.2 million were reported, yet there was an increase in illegally caught and confiscated sea cucumbers. What was not being reported just ended up being sold in the illegal markets.
“It’s not just a few Galapaganians doing the illegal fishing. There’s a big group from the north, from Costa Rica, that comes here to take shark fins. They catch them within the park’s marine reserve and then take them out of the supposedly protected waters where they are sold mostly to Asian countries, like Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
“All this shark finning has an impact on tourism, not just the fish population. If there are fewer sharks to observe, there will one day be fewer tourists coming to see them. Without sharks the whole ecosystem will crumble and then the question is will tourists continue to come to the Galapagos?
“Enforcement in the Galapagos is not as efficient as Sea Shehperd would like to see.Plus, there’s a lot of corruption in the local Navy. Sometimes the Navy will alert illegal fishermen that the park officials are in the area.I’ve been coming to the Galapagos ever since I first joined Sea Shepherd in 2002 and every time I come, for a month or so, we catch poachers. So it is possible. They are absolutely out there and we know how to find them and pass the information on to the park. But the Navy often warns off the poachers so that by the time the park rangers arrive … they are gone.
“Unfortunately we don’t have any jurisdiction to apprehend the poachers, so all we can do is notify the park and start pulling in the long lines, which is mostly what they use to fish for sharks.
“I think it would certainly help if the park rangers were armed. If you go to a supermarket in Quito you see a security guard with a gun protecting bags of potatoes. Here we have this beautiful pristine ecosystem called the Galapagos Islands, and the park rangers have absolutely no jurisdiction whatsoever, they are not even allowed to carry batons. I think that the park rangers should definitely be armed. I think if the word got out to the illegal fishermen that the park rangers were armed and capable of making arrests, I think it would be a lot harder for poachers to come in here and take sharks or any other species.”
Like so many parts of our still-protected world, in Galapagos it is sometimes easy to get swamped by what’s gone wrong with the place and overlook its uniqueness. Our new film, “What Would Darwin Think,” attempts to show both. Obviously the close to 200,000 tourists who arrive each year are coming for good reason – Galapagos offers the most spectacular glimpse of biodiversity on the planet. Albatross, boobies, finches and mockingbirds; iguanas, tortoises and penguins; sharks, dolphins and hundreds of species of fish. And more. Everywhere – everywhere — you look.
While I’ve been focused these past couple weeks on some of the ills besetting this truly special place – too many tourists, too many locals, shark finning, sea cucumber poaching, etc. — I’ve just put up some reminders of why Galapagos is such a draw. Photo galleries from Santa Cruz are up now: A peek at the natural world archives at the Charles Darwin Center; a look at local’s life and tourist life; the fish market and some of the incredible beauty. During the week we’ll add more photos from Santa Cruz, of Sea Shepherd’s operation and a recent protest by tourist operators plus beauty shots from seven more islands – Bartolome, Espanola, Fernandina, Isabella, North Seymour, Plaza and Santiago. If you can think of a place with more creatures per square meter … let me know.